The story of our past is not merely given. It is a complex construction of carefully interwoven narratives, forging a coherent memory and corresponding national behavior. People and parties in power have the prerogative of defining what we consider to be our history, while burying fragments which do not fit and which contradict the desired larger picture. The Second World War, the Cold War, Vietnam, 1989: all of those milestones of our constitutive modern historical canon are interpreted in a specific fashion which leads us to believe in simplified, almost mythologically formulated black and white struggles between opposing forces of good and evil. Neptune is presenting a series of takes on this approach from the position of contemporary artists dealing with our history, in forms which may be mainly literal or more symbolic, representing a path which leads us to our own time.
In 1964, the Interior Ministry of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic established a Soviet-type Department of Active Measures, which functioned with the support and under the supervision of the KGB. The objective of this secret division was the spreading of disinformation and propaganda in local and international media, the falsification of official documents, and the perpetration of political assassinations and repressive measures. One of the two protagonists of Adéla Babanová’s new film Neptune, Ladislav Bittman, known at the time by the alias Vladimír Brychta, was a member of this department.
After the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact armies in 1968, Bittman emigrated to the US, where he revealed details of the activities of the department, including one of its key operations codenamed Operation Neptune, before a hearing of the US Congress. While the crew of an entertaining and educational television programme called Zvědavá kamera (Curious Camera) was filming a documentary about the fabled glacial lakes of the Bohemian Forest, the disinformation department staged the discovery of chests containing fake documents, allegedly hidden on the bottom of one of the lakes by Nazi soldiers during their retreat in 1945. At the time of the ‘discovery,’ the carefully prepared, authentic-looking chests were empty. The documents, which were intended to compromise West German politicians by revealing their Nazi past, thus leading to the extension of the statute of limitations on prosecuting Nazi crimes, were only delivered from Moscow later. The entire operation was exceptionally successful and well received by the general public, both at home and abroad. Bittman was one of the divers who ‘discovered’ the chests in the lake, having placed them there in the first place. Together with her brother Džian, who wrote the screenplay, Adéla Babanová overlays manipulated ‘truth’ with an additional sprinkling of uncertainty. The boundary between reality and fiction is thus seldom recognisable, ceasing to be important as the film progresses and its dramatic dynamic intensifies. The film’s impression of belonging to the documentary genre undergoes several dynamic changes, climaxing in an almost Lynchian, surreal and dream-like denouement. It extends the timeline of the era of post-truth and shows us that our epoch is very much rooted in the past.
When the state police forged Operation Neptune, a complex net of references came into play in an assault on public sentiments: local imagination (an old prevailing belief that the lake is cursed); a constructed image, implanted in the general public’s memory, of fleeing Nazis burying documents and stolen treasures in border areas (Czechoslovak films produced in the 1950s depicted several stories about such materials being discovered); and an idea of scientific progress through exploration of previously unknown deep realms beneath the dark waters, negating the first-mentioned idea, diminishing old legends and rewriting them with new ones. Adéla is blurring all these layers with a new surreal story. By placing her fantastic fable on top of existing manipulations, she’s literally breaking apart a house of cards of lies and fiction transforming them into a dream-like scenario.
Adéla’s Neptune is juxtaposed with works by her colleagues, utilizing them within her strategies of appropriating found material to navigate through a complex web of historical references. She groups and grounds them in the contemporary social and political climate, so as to emphasize the formative role of the past in our current discourse.
Hynek Alt is literally lifting up a sculpture of Miloš Zet, Czech sculptor active in the period of 1960s-1980s. Miloš Zet was a devoted communist, entering the party full of idealism right after the war. Changes of the political climate in the aftermath of the Prague Spring let to his expulsion in 1970. The statue, called “Young Day,” made in the same year as the Operation Neptune took place, is depicting a girl on the threshold of adolescence, full of life and energy ready to dutifully dedicate it to fulfilment of her role in building a new, just and positive future. Zet’s artworks were almost exclusively placed in the public space of socialist Czechoslovakia, conceived as integral parts of the complex architectural plan of an area or a building. For the socialist public they provided a manifestation of traditionally grounded beauty, mostly with a background of newly revived, restrained modernism, which after the death of Stalin and EXPO58 replaced the formerly dominant socialist realism. His sculptures were a natural part of a new organisation of the society, based on appreciation of similar values and forms as in Ancient Greece, re-verbalised by the renaissance, and further rediscovered by humanism after the WW2. “Young Day” was made in two copies cast in bronze. The first copy can be traced to a spa area in Teplice nad Bečvou, and the second found its location in Ostrava, Poruba. Through the collaboration of Hynek and Miloš Zet’s son Martin (also an artist), a plaster cast of “Young Day”, stored in Miloš Zet’s studio for decades, was given a new life opportunity in Hynek’s appropriation, called simply “Untitled (Young Day)”, 2018. By bounding the sculpture in transport straps and elevating it above the ground, giving it a sensation of weightlessness and levitation on the one hand, on the other a feeling of transfer or contingency of a new meaning, Hynek writes a next chapter in the life of this historical form. When the statue lifts up, its history comes with it, even though without a trained eye one can hardly trace its origin due to the relatively generic figurative style applied. It is quite likely that without mentioning it, you wouldn’t even associate her legacy with the period of the 1960s. Does she belong there or not, if we actually don’t realize it? Is the past only what we know about it or rather what we are told to believe?
The binding that holds the sculptures in place is carefully recreated, using a series of documentary images of various historical artworks prepared for a shipment. The original concept behind “Untitled” placed it on a darkened stage in a theatre for a brief span of one minute, presenting it almost as a spectre of its challenging past. As part of Neptune, the object receives the attention of the exhibition format, an intact place in time and space. The fact of levitation nevertheless displaces this status into an endless transition. As if the course of history were be halted in a single glimpse of a second, motionless, stuck in a movement of a minute hand which is not going forward any more, repeatedly announcing an uncanny revelation that time is no more. Christian Kosmas Mayer’s video ULAM, 2013 presents us with a lesson in a language representing communication between men of the Stone Age some 80,000 years ago. The only problem is that we actually have no notion of how people of that era spoke. This language, called Ulam (as is the video), was artificially conceived for the 1981 film “Le guerre du feu” (Quest for Fire) by the French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, known for his 1981 adaptation of Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose”. The creators of the language are the English writer and composer Anthony Burgess, known mainly for his dystopian satire A Clockwork Orange, and Desmond Morris, English zoologist, ethologist and surrealist painter, as well as a popular author in human sociobiology. Ulam is based on colourful vocal expressions formulated by Burgess and a rich gestural apparatus choreographed by Morris. Sentences like “I am hungry for tiger meat” are constructed from a study of the oldest languages of which we have a vocal knowledge, going thousands of years back and trying to find some approximation to what could have been a native tongue of our distant ancestors. Christian Kosmas takes original footage from the rehearsals with the actors of the film, combining them with interviews he did with Bibi Caspari, one of the actresses, and newly reconstructed “language courses” with a group of performers. He is thinking about Ulam as a possibly existing language which only a handful of people are still able to use, in an attempt to spread knowledge of it and to save such a treasure of the past from oblivion. In this way he addresses the essential issue of dying languages. According to a statistic, from a total of approximately 7000 currently existing languages, one endangered language becomes extinct every two weeks. Besides which, the application of fiction, or let’s say human imagination, plays a significant role in real circumstances.
Popular culture is able to produce complex new systems which could through conviction of its fans overcome its original purpose. Probably the most widespread phenomenon of this sort is Klingon, the language of an adversary race of the same name in almost endless series of Star Trek TV shows, films, novels, and computer games. Not only that Star Trek buffs dress up as numerous characters and races introduced in ST, they also helped to formulate a comprehensive vocabulary and grammar of one of the most used alien languages. If we can speak as a warrior race from a possible distant future, why not as our own long lost ancestors?
Black and white images of late modernistic architecture and interior design, ornaments, and almost unrecognizable bits and pieces of figures and other creatures, abstracted forms, and various additional visual stimuli, contribute to the creation of Daniel Pitín’s elaborate collages. Pitín reaches out for the same strategies and visual language as in his paintings and films, though in this case with much more focused and concentrated attention to the single detail, taken as a constitutive element of a new reality for the original found material being utilised. The images forming this particular series emphasize the role of the singular item, while in his paintings or films these specificities cross-connect in a net of relationships to present a bigger picture, environment or situation. The reason for this approach could be that the present series, entitled “Little Animals”, was conceived as integral elements of a site-specific installation for the church of Saint Salvador in Prague, where they interacted on a sculptural set with the baroque-style architecture of the venue. This time they stand almost alone, but even here the negation of the traditional twodimensional setting, typical for adjusting collages, comes into play. In remembrance of the original installation, the collages are interwoven into a simple grid, or rather a promise of a grid made with paint on the wall underneath. The collages are partially stepping out of the wall, as if they were literally crying out for a spatial setting rather than the merely flat form they are assigned to. Daniel’s collages are showing a possibility to restructure past inputs into a new coherent assembly without gravity of their original context. Conceiving a previously unfamiliar state of things, which is becoming a reality of the moment. The history of cinema, along with late-modern architecture, and their commonly shared and recognisable visual heritage, form the backbone of Daniel’s oeuvre, onto which current socio-political issues are attached like flesh and tissue. He thus creates a body of work in which our perception naturally slides back and forth on the timeline without friction, allowing us to perceive the individual elements in constant confrontation with their counterparts, no matter how improbable those may be.
The reason why the state police of socialist Czechoslovakia named their operation after the Ancient Roman god of the sea and freshwater seems to be obvious, since their elaborate scheme literally came out of the depths of the water of the glacial lake. This is reinforced by the sinister role the Devil’s lake played in local legends. What is probably more interesting in this context is the fact that Neptune, like the rest of the Roman heavenly pantheon, is appropriated from older existing Greek tradition, specifically in this case from the figure of Poseidon. One complex system of religious beliefs, and the genealogy of immortals, is taken and adapted by another culture without much of an attempt to cover up the evident similarities. The historical tradition is rewritten to serve the narrative of a new dominant political power. Stories manipulating the past in our own context are much more sophisticated, reflecting the more advanced general knowledge in present-day Europe, thanks to the widespread use of information media. The methodology is the same, however. We still hold on to the idea that reality and fiction are two separate systems, that facts belong to a particular time and place – a belief that all of the works presented are challenging and negating. Current rapid developments in virtual and augmented realities are heading in the same direction and will most probably teach us how to understand our reality as a permutable collage.